Do I have a choice?

Christmas is fast approaching. An unfeasibly large tree now inhabits half the front room and is bedecked with crimbo-bling. My fourteen year old daughter has started talking to me. And last night we went to see a pantomime (Peter Pan at the Bristol Hippodrome) starring – wait for it – David Hasselhoff. Oh yes. Christmas is fast approaching.Now I’m not a bah humbug kind of a guy. Far from it in fact. I love Christmas and I revel with the best of the, uh, revellers. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to become slightly frayed at the edges as the commercial machine cranks up and launches a multi-mode assault on our senses designed to engage us in bumper consumption. Perhaps the new TV advert from John Lewis does represent a minor backlash this year, triggered by that pesky global economic recession. So I think perhaps I’m allowed a little cathartic moan around mid-December to purge myself of negativity before gorging myself on Christmas spirit…

My theme this year is the paradox of choice. You may be wondering whether this theme will eventually meander anywhere near the intersection of technology and education but please bear with me. It’ll happen – eventually. So, choice. Go and watch this video from 2006. It’s Barry Schwartz talking about this very subject at TED and promoting his book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’. If you haven’t the time, then here it is in brief. In essence, it posits the following:

  1. Freedom is good!
  2. We must therefore maximise freedom.
  3. The way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice.
  4. But more choice means higher expectations.
  5. Higher expectations mean more disappointment.
  6. Ergo, more choice leads to less happiness.

In other words, life was simple when there was only one type of TV. We bought a cathode ray TV and that was it. Now we have a choice between plasma, LCD and LED! OK, so we plump for plasma because of its faster image response time (so say better for watching sport). But ringing in our ears is the counter argument: but the picture isn’t as bright… Perhaps I should have bought an LED TV? And having seen the LED TV in the store, when I get home and I’m not watching sport? Well, the image just isn’t as bright is it? I’m disappointed. The choice that was supposed to fulfil my every consumer need has in fact left me disappointed because of what I didn’t choose! And that’s if I didn’t fall into consumer paralysis through the sheer overwhelming breadth of choice.

Now, here’s where it gets relevant. If there’s one tool that could have exacerbated this problem beyond all recognition in the last two decades, surely it’s the Internet? The proliferation of shared ‘stuff’ is simply staggering. No infographic is really going to help me here. It reminds me of a quote from Douglas Adams: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Substitute ‘Internet’ for ‘space’ and you’ll get where we’re coming from. If more choice leads to less happiness then the Internet must be the single greatest cause of depression in all history. Is that how it feels?

OK, so I don’t feel like that although I’m open to the possibility. There’s no doubt that the amount of information available on the Internet is vast. And the more creative we all become, the more there is to consume. No doubt the quality bar is continually raised and we become more and more discerning in order to filter down the volume to a manageable level. And surely if our discernment is high, then our capacity and tolerance for ‘sub-standard’ is diminished? If our tolerance for sub-standard is diminished then surely we’re going to be disappointed more often and live miserable lives? Here’s where I think the theorem breaks down for the modern Internet age. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Because as the number of choices we have to make increases, the relative investment we attribute to each micro-choice decreases. If we’re not attributing high value to choices because of their sheer volume, then we’re less likely to suffer as a consequence of them.
  2. Because the crowd power of the Internet further dilutes the potential negative impact of wide choice by reassuring us that somebody else has and will always make the same choice. We’re not alone.

It’s the second of these two points that I think really holds the key and represents important value for the education community to grasp. The way in which human beings cope with complexity is through reliance on social structures, not by developing highly tuned skills in the field if information filtering and critical analysis. There’s no harm in teaching young people these skills but they depend on a single point of failure – the individual. But the power of a best friend’s interpretation? Or 50 friends? Or 50,000 acquaintances? The power of a crowd dialogue? As unfathomably vast as the Internet (or possibly the universe).The point I’m trying to make is that the emerging social structures in the Internet are an extension of our essence as learning beings. We intuitively grasp that our social structures extend and enhance our senses, the capacity of our brains, more effectively than any individually learnt skill or fact. The Internet is a tool that offers us a vast expansion of our social capacity and therefore enormous opportunities for relevant and engaging learning (personalised if you must), both informal and formal. Of course it can be frivolous too. Nothing wrong with a little bit of ‘frivolous’ from time to time. But it can also be serious and formal if those words offer some comfort. The challenge to educators and education systems is to embrace social learning and collaboration through the Internet, not eschew it.

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